Recognizing and Citing Indigenous Oral Knowledge: An Interview with Lorisia MacLeod

In June of 2021, Lorisia MacLeod, a librarian from the James Smith Cree Nation, published an article called “More Than Personal Communication: Templates for Citing Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers,” presenting citation templates to recognize Indigenous knowledge in academia. Because both APA and MLA style guides encourage writers to cite any oral communication that does not have a written or audio recording as “personal communication,” Indigenous oral teaching gets put “on the same footing as a quick phone call, […] while even tweets are given a reference citation.” 

By using MacLeod’s templates to include a full citation in a References or Works Cited list, Indigenous oral knowledge can be “presented as an equal and valid information format alongside familiar formats like books and journals.” Lorisia has generously agreed to be interviewed for ACRLog about her work; I invite you to click the link above and read her original article as well! 

Q: In news coverage about this project, you’ve shared that you first realized the need for better citation of oral communication when you were an undergraduate studying anthropology, and that you worked with the Indigenous Student Centre at NorQuest College in Edmonton to develop templates for APA and MLA style. Tell me more about the process of creating custom citation templates. Was your institution supportive from the beginning? How did you select which elements to include? 

A: That’s right, I was very lucky to have two amazing anthropology professors during my undergraduate—Dr. Jack Ives and Dr. Kisha Supernaut (Métis)—who really recognized the importance of including Indigenous voices especially in a field that traditionally studied Indigenous people but in a very extractive way. I felt they both really highlighted the importance of community-engaged archaeology and taught about valuing Indigenous voices despite the historical academic records lack of Indigenous representation. Of course one of the tricky things about valuing something in academia is that often our value is shown by whose voices are highlighted, so if citation styles don’t recognize Indigenous ways of knowing it can be really hard to fully achieve that level of respect it deserves. At the time, I just remember thinking someone should change that limitation—make ways of citing our oral teachings more equal. Fast forward a few years and I’m talking about things academic institutions could do as actions to support reconciliation, indigenization, decolonization etc and I realize as an Indigenous librarian that maybe it was something I could be involved in doing. Since I had developed good relationships with the staff in the Indigenous Student Centre at NorQuest it really was about drafting up some examples of alternate citation templates and just asking if I could show it to them and talk.

I think I was really lucky because there was a lot of support—folks seemed to understand that it was important to take action, to make a change, in order to make the big buzzwords mean anything. I’ll admit, the fact that it was developed by an Indigenous librarian and the input from the folks in the Indigenous Student Centre helped (big shout out to Delores, Elliott, Conor, and Karie)— I had some great friends there cheering us on every step of the way and really trying to uplift our voices. When I started out drafting up something to talk about, I actually relied heavily on Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples by Gregory Younging (an amazing resource for anyone and everyone to read in my opinion). It does a great job of talking about how nations differ so it’s important to try to be precise, and other key ideas that lead me to look at what relationships mattered in a citation. From there it really seemed to flow together, trying to mimic the way that other citations for books are done, I tried to interweave that with elements like who is their nation, what is the teaching about. I tried to keep it general so it could be flexible—not every nation, person, or teaching would be the same, so some elements became if applicable. This was a part where having the amazing folks in the Indigenous Student Centre was irreplaceable, just talking about how we’d use this piece of the template or maybe this part would be better phrased like this. They also helped to figure out which parts should be included so it really was a group effort that organically formed in some ways. I guess it’s really fitting that citation templates about citing and valuing our words were mostly made through chats!

Q: Undergraduate research assignments often direct students toward published, written information, and students might not consider consulting other sources, like Indigenous oral knowledge. What ways could professors incorporate Indigenous knowledge in research assignments? How can we design assignments that get students to branch out from “traditional” information formats like books and articles?

A: So I’m a strong believer that there are connections to Indigenous knowledge in pretty much every subject BUT the key when it comes to incorporating Indigenous knowledge is really relationships. If instructors want to incorporate Indigenous knowledges, especially oral teachings, I really hope they are looking to invest in long-term mutually respectful relationships with Indigenous knowledge keepers. It’s technically incorporation to get the Elder-in-resident to come to speak in class once or send students to them but it isn’t really a good relationship to me. We only have so many Knowledge Keepers and they only have so much time so using them for one-offs for a class to check some box—well, it doesn’t feel any different from the extractive knowledge processes of many early settlers. Long-term engagement is more work but it’s honestly the kind of investment that has the potential to create real change.

So that’s a long-term thing but that isn’t to say there isn’t something folks could do right now. I think for instructors you’ll want to start by looking at your own syllabus—look at the readings you have and whose voices they are. If you don’t have Indigenous voices, then maybe you should change whose voices you are raising up (this can also apply to other minority voices that may not be represented in your syllabus). 

In both your syllabus and in your assignments, consider why you are putting in requirements about works cited having to be academic articles? There are tons of amazing Indigenous scientists, Knowledge Keepers, language keepers, activists etc that are really active on social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok. Now I’m not saying only use Twitter feeds for your readings, but infusing these into your assignments and syllabus is actually also going to teach learners information literacy skills. It’ll teach them how to engage with social media with a critical eye and combine various information formats to get a better picture of something. But a lot of that does depend on instructors and institution policies, just remember—just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way or that it’s still the best way now.

Q: What other ways can academic libraries demonstrate respect for Indigenous ways of knowing? 

A: This can be a bit of a tricky question to answer generally because it really depends on where each institution is at—some have great ties with local Indigenous groups, others have only just started trying out land acknowledgements. But here are some broad ideas:

  • Be honest with yourself, your institution, and your staff about where you really are: if you are still mostly doing virtue-signalling actions but aren’t able to acknowledge that’s what they are, it’s going to be really hard for anyone to be able to plan a realistic path forward. That can also impact the ability and interest of Indigenous communities to partner with you.
  • Who is in your collection and how? Take a look at Indigenous authors in all fields and look at how they are catalogued, what is their metadata. And when do you promote them? Please don’t only bring out the Indigenous authors for Indigenous History Month- they deserve to be highlighted in your STEM displays, your general literature displays, and the same goes for however you promote resources to your faculty.
  • Invest in staff learning: This has to be an ongoing area of learning and commitment with institutional support. Academic institutions have their roots in systems that kept out Indigenous peoples and our knowledges (or appropriated them) so for many professionals, the voices we have today probably weren’t something they learned about in their classes. So if there is a webinar panel of Indigenous scientists coming up then yes—the science liaison librarian should probably be attending.
  • Look at the Calls to Action and the CFLA TRC report: I know, these documents are getting older and are Canadian-centric but that doesn’t mean that all the calls have been met or that they aren’t useful for others. Find actions you need to take and then hold yourself/your institutions accountable to working on them. An important thing to note with this is that process is often viewed as a linear path—in my experience, true respectful actions might take a less direct path. A library might realize that they didn’t have the relationships they thought they had and need to change the plan to develop those—I don’t think that’s a failure. To me, that kind of openness to adapt and change is a reflection of respect, it acknowledges that true respect requires ongoing engagement and the needs of the parties involved naturally will change over time.
  • Have Indigenous knowledges in your library: Yes this, of course, means buying Indigenous books but consider how our knowledges aren’t limited to that format. What about art? What about having storytellers and Knowledge Keepers? What about partnering with your institutions’ Indigenous student centre or local Indigenous groups?

Q: Who are some librarians (or experts in other fields/identities) that inspire and influence you in your work?

A: Aside from those I talked about above, I have to start off with the obvious (and slightly sappy) answer which is that my Dad (Kirk MacLeod) and sister (Kaia MacLeod) are huge inspirations to me. My Dad was in the library field for over a decade before me, so he was one of those Indigenous librarians who helped make space for future generations like me and my sister. The field he entered was very different from when I entered shortly after the release of the TRC report; he has always cheered me on and been a role model on leading change but remaining humble. Kaia just entered librarianship and in addition to being a really awesome librarian in her own right, she motivates me to keep trying to improve the field for all future Indigenous librarians, just like our Dad did for us. Now that we are all in the same field, they give me feedback and their perspectives from other areas in the field too! Plus it’s a constant reminder that the field is full of amazing people to work with, like Jessie Loyer a fantastic Cree-Métis librarian, cousin, and friend who always seemed to know just the right thing to say to empower early-career Indigenous librarians to create change.

Gregory Younging (Opsakwayak Cree Nation): His book Elements of Indigenous Style was a huge inspiration. I’m pretty sure I recommended that read to everyone I knew—it was an amazing guide that somehow managed to walk a fine line between instructional and allowing for space for community engagement. That was a stance that I’ve really tried to emulate in my own work because I think it is a perfect way of tackling Indigenous matters without falling into the pan-Indigenous identity trap.

Eve Tuck (Unangax? ), K. Wayne Yang, Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández: If you haven’t taken a look at The Citation Challenge, I would highly recommend it. This was part of what drove home for me the important role that citation has in respect and power systems.

Dr Jessica Hernandez (Zapotec and Ch’orti’): An amazing Indigenous scientist who I’ve followed for years. Now I’m not a scientist but her work is a great example of the amazing work current Indigenous scholars make that deserves to be considered for syllabus readings. Supporting scholars like her is part of what inspires me! She recently just published a new book too: Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science.

At the risk of creating a ridiculously long list I think I’ll cut myself off there.

Thank you to Lorisia MacLeod for her contributions to scholarly communication, and for sharing her thoughts with us here at ACRLog.